A pet dog can act as a significant stress reducer for families who have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a new study at the University of Lincoln, UK.
The findings show a reduction in the number of dysfunctional interactions between parent and child among families who own a dog, and these anti-stress benefits appear to get stronger over time.
“Parents of children with autism can experience increased anxiety and stress, and now we have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony,” said Steven Feldman, Executive Director at the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation.
The project, which focused specifically on how pet dogs affect families with ASD children, is one of the first of several research projects funded by HABRI investigating the effects of companion animals on human health.
“While there is growing evidence that animal-assisted therapy can aid in the treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders, this study is one of the first to examine how pet dog ownership can also improve the lives of those more widely affected by autism,” said study leader Dr. Daniel Mills, professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln.
“Researchers have previously focused on the positive effects that assistance dogs can have on the child’s well-being and have passed over the impact they might also have on close relatives, but our results show that owning a pet dog (rather than a specifically trained assistance dog) can considerably improve the function of the whole family unit.”
“We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child’s main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog. This highlights the importance of the bond between the carer and their dog in the benefits they gain.”
The research involved families with an autistic child who had also been participating in an earlier study on the short-term effects of dog ownership. The researchers followed up with the families two and a half years later in order to determine the long-term benefits of having a pet dog.
The findings show that initial results of reduced family difficulties lasted years beyond the early stages of acquiring a dog, and that stress levels continued to experience a steady decline.
“Stress associated with parenting a child with autism continued to decrease among dog owners over time, but we did not see the same reductions in families without a dog,” added Mills.
“This long-term follow-up study highlights the potential benefits of pet ownership in bringing long-term improvements to the lives of families living with a child with autism.”
The findings are published in the American Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
Source: University of Lincoln